DISCLAIMER: X-Men and Criminal Minds belong to their creators and anyone else with a legal right to their use and abuse.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: None. This is way too wildly AU.
Emily's Notebooks: The Christmas Revolution
They called it the Christmas Revolution, eventually, after the dead had been buried and the grass had grown back over the blasted earth, the day the Rasputins came to power. They brought true unity to the Soviet States, and true revolution.
My mother and I were in the Ukraine at the time. She had come as an Ambassador from the United States, and when the United States fell to Erik Magnus, we stayed as refugees. The USSR was one of the few places where the Empire of Mutants had not yet taken hold. Although only as guests in a harsh land with few comforts, we lived free of the purges and the slavers for longer than most.
That Christmas we had been given a pound of lentils by kind neighbors, and my mother had managed some semblance of the traditional Ukrainian soup. It was better food than we had had for a few months. My mother had always complained about the poor supplies available in the Soviet States, with its disinterest in trade with more developed countries, but it had only gotten worse as the Soviet Union became the last bastion of human rule. Other countries, weaker and less stubborn, had fallen under the demands of the Empire, attacked on two fronts, by foreign forces and internal terrorists with unimagined powers. Winters in the Ukraine were always hard, but without any international trade and terrorists disrupting food transport and grain stores, we had gone without more nights than we had eaten.
In some ways it was a relief when the raiders came. There was no more waiting. The black hole we had dreaded for so long was finally swallowing us up.
We heard the screams from the village long before they reached our house. My mother had time to load the shotgun she had kept and religiously cleaned for just such an eventuality. I didn't know why. I stilled her hand from its furious polishing and asked her what hope she had in fighting. She had told me I would never understand. I had spent too much of my life in the USSR, and could whistle the Internationale more readily than the Star Spangled Banner. There was nothing worth more to her than freedom.
I didn't understand. I was only fifteen then, but even now her reasoning seems flawed. What is freedom but the chance to begin anew? And what beginnings are there in death?
When the door burst open she let off a shot, again and again, into the leading man's chest. A torch of flame shot out from the man behind him and enveloped her. I saw her body aflame, blackened and scorched as she still moved and thrashed, trying to fire the twisted hunk of metal one more time.
"Come out with your hands bare if you want to live," they shouted, first in Russian and then in Ukrainian. I obeyed, scarcely able to do otherwise as my mother's body still twitched and glowed with heat. They stripped me, checking for explosives, then bound me and threw me into the caravan with the other humans who had been too afraid or too weak to die.
We spent weeks in that caravan, living like dogs, and then were shipped on trains to the old Gulags, now cleared of prisoners, the humans thrown in with the rest of us, and the mutants set free.
We mixed with humans from other areas, and that was where I heard of the rise of the Rasputins: Mikhail, Piotr, and Illyana, and their domination of Leningrad and finally Moscow. The Kremlin had fallen to the Mutant Empire, and now there was no land on earth where humans were anything but slaves.
At the Gulag they sorted us into classes. Those of us with skills or other desirable qualities would be sent back to the cities for distribution among the mutant populace, and those without would labor in the camps for the good of the Empire.
I could speak English and some Arabic, which gave me some rank, but my Ukrainian was better than my Russian, which marked me out as provincial. I was also young, female, and had survived the trip a virgin, which few managed, so eventually they decided that I would be sent to the Kremlin for personal service to the Rasputins.
I was not as much of a virgin as reputed. I had had a girlfriend in the small town we had moved to when we left Kiev, although we had barely done more than kiss. And in the Gulag I had shared a few rough blankets with a woman from Moscow who said her name was Irina and little else. She had picked me out of the crowd of rural Ukrainian peasants, thrown me her bedroll and told me to follow her. She touched me at night, but never looked at me while doing it, and never went too far. She gave me advice that my mother would have considered treasonous, and taught me to move silently so as not to get noticed by the more brutal guards. But she would never tell me what she had done before the revolution.
Quite quickly she became invaluable to the guards as a spy amongst the humans, keeping an eye out for plots. I asked her why she would betray us like that. She laughed at me and told me that letting them shoot the ringleaders would save us all from being shot like eels in a tank, ready to be eaten.
I didn't want to be like her, naming the names that sent others to their deaths. I wonder if that was the potential she saw in me however, that caused her to pick me out of the groups to warm her bed. I was grateful to her though, she made sure I had enough to eat, and we both kept each other from freezing those first months of the cold new year.
Some weren't so lucky. Diseases ran rampant in those close quarters, and it was far too cold in the poorly insulated buildings. It was the children who were dying, in shivering emaciated bundles, their parents sometimes lost or sometimes just incapable of providing aid. It was so hard to watch, but there was nothing I could do, and nothing Irina would do.
She had a little girl once, she told me. But she didn't say what had happened to her, and I could not bring myself to ask.
When I arrived in Moscow it turned out that eager officials had sent far too many slaves to the Kremlin and we were all kept in the old stables until something could be done with us. The ones with practical skills were put to work, but the rest waited. I waited.
It was Illyana who saw us all, stuck with the boring clerical labor while her brothers got to enjoy themselves with politics and military actions. I was the only one who saw the irritation and exhaustion on her face though. Everyone else just burned with anger. Their words about raping and murdering her if they got the chance were far uglier than her dry questions about our abilities and our futures.
All she did was look at me, gave one spare glance to my credentials (noting I hadn't even finished high-school and had no practical skills at all) and marked me down as a breeder/concubine. It was the best thing she could have done. Piotr was more interested in the strapping young men from the farms, and Mikhail sought out slender, full-breasted blonde women who looked unnervingly like his sister. I was left alone and worked cleaning the stables for the next two years, as other, more attractive, women were sold out from alongside me, to wealthy Russian mutants or foreign slave traders. No one was interested in a skinny young breeder with a strange unpretty face. And Irina's lessons about fading into the background, going unnoticed, and staying out of trouble had served me well.
Then the man came. He wasn't looking for a breeder. He was looking for me in particular, a Prentiss, he said. He had known my mother before the revolution. But he was a mutant, rather well situated in the regime that ran what was formerly known as the United States.
His daughter was moving to Genosha, and he bought me as a present for her. He explained to me that my purpose was to please her, and to keep my ears open, inform him of anything I may have learned about her business when he made contact with me. He repulsed me, and I wondered what sort of loyalty he expected of a slave he had just bought to give away.
Winston Frost was a handsome man, but there was an ugly brutality in his eyes, and for a long time I wondered whether he would try me out himself before passing me on to his daughter. But he wore an odd expression when he looked at me, and I wondered if he were seeing me at all. It was not a comfortable thought to wonder whether he had been with my mother before the Revolution. In the end he only felt my breasts as if testing for ripeness, and had me branded.
The Americans liked to tattoo their slaves, a small symbol on the right shoulder blade, but in Russia we were more old-fashioned. I already had a stumpy K indicating that I was a Kremlin slave. The hot metal pressing into my flesh and leaving a raised shiny pink burn was not something I ever wanted to experience again, but Baron Frost had no time to take me back to the Americas with him, so he had the blacksmith prepare an odd, stylized F.
It was worse the second time, because I knew what to expect. The mark hurt for days afterward. I could not sleep on my back, and when we left for Africa it was no longer easy to pack the wound with snow until the pain numbed itself.
Genosha, an island off the east coast of Africa, barely a quarter of the size of Madagascar, was the home of the main court of the Mutant Empire. Erik Magnus lived there, in a palace in the lush mountains. So did all who desperately wanted to be important. Those who were important in their homelands all had houses in Hammer Bay where they would come when decisions were to be made or special appointments handed out.
Baron Frost brought me from the hotel to a tall glistening white building on the outskirts of the city. He had told me to bathe and dress in the clean clothes he had brought. They were scarcely anything, just a black strapless dress that covered me from breast to hip and sandals. For the first time I truly felt aware of my status as a concubine. I had always been vulnerable and aware of that, but I had never really understood that it was my purpose to be used. There was always a faint suggestion that I needed to save myself and my reputation for someone, for my final owner. But now I would have an owner, and there was no reason I could muster to deny her. I was a body, a possession. I stood in front of the mirror in the hotel until the Baron yelled at me looking at myself. I wondered if she would want me. I was skinny and ugly, burned and scarred. I had forgotten so much of my English that I sounded like an imbecile when I spoke. I seemed to be an absurdly worthless gift.
It only made sense when I discovered I had been bought as an insult.
"Emma, darling," the Baron said, entering the room, and gesturing for me to kneel by the wall. He gave the girl a kiss that was received stiffly and then moved away, and I was given my first sight of my new mistress.
She was young, it was clear, and bony, with skinny arms like mine. Her hair was short and blonde, browner at the roots, and chopped off bluntly at her chin. There was a knot and twist in her nose as if it had been broken and not healed properly, and the way she moved to keep a distance between herself and her father made me wonder if he was the one who had done it.
I was brought to her, eyes down, pushed to my knees, and I barely got a glimpse of her reaction to me, but there was a clear flash of discomfort, a vulnerability in her eyes. It hardened quickly and she looked to her father with disdain. "Why would I want this?" she asked, and I thought I might be more than a spy. I was meant to be a sign of her father's power over her, the knowledge he held that she did not wish anyone else to know. But I wondered if he had miscalculated, because save for the first glance, she didn't even look at me.
I was wrong. A few minutes later, when her father was expounding on an uninteresting proposal that was doing the rounds at court, she looked back. I met her glance, accidentally, and she flinched away.
She may have been a mutant, I thought, but she was just a girl, hardly more than a child, and younger than me. I couldn't be afraid of her. Even when I felt the first brush against my mind, feather light, I still had no reason to fear her or hate her.
I was given quarters downstairs with the other house slaves. Although our mistress lived alone, she was well positioned enough to often be entertaining other members of the court, and the amount of servants she kept was in proportion to that. Her body of servants was not only made up of human slaves. She also employed lower status mutants for more public or sensitive duties.
From the moment I stepped into the slave quarters it was clear that the rumor mill there ran incredibly quickly. They greeted me as 'new girl' but behind my back called me the Commie Whore. They didn't even ask my name, but they knew that I was classed as a concubine and treated me as if it were an integral part of my character.
I hadn't spoken English for two years, not since my mother died, and only with her for many years before that. They laughed at me for my difficulty with it. Only Jennifer, a twelve-year-old bath attendant, spoke to me as if I could understand her. She was also the only one who asked me if I was actually Russian. There was a little thrill of terror in her tone of voice as she asked, and she was utterly shocked when I said that I was American, but had lived in the Soviet Union for eight years. Then she asked if I were a communist traitor, and I wondered if this really was the attitude American children were raised with, even after the revolution. JJ must have been only eight when the United States fell to Erik Magnus, and yet she had been carefully indoctrinated in Cold War ideology. I impulsively asked where her parents were, wondering what they were like, before considering how awful the answer could be.
She said her father was fighting in the war. I couldn't find a way to tell her that the war was over, and we had lost. But her opinions were more understandable knowing she had come from a military family. She said her mother, her brother and two sisters were still in America, but she hadn't seen them since she was eight and they disappeared out of her house one night. She had been having nightmares about her father in the war and had gone to sleep with the family dog. When she awoke, the house was empty.
A lot of her neighbors had disappeared too, but she had found a soldier who had brought her to a group house in New England with lots of other kids. She explained it as if it had been a lot of fun, but it was clear it had been some sort of brothel.
She was afraid of our mistress because she had come into the brothel and the guards had all slumped over at once. They had looked dead. Then the children were all split up and sent new places. She was one of three who had been kept by the Frosts, and the only one brought to Africa.
Once I had explained that my mother was an Ambassador and I was not a communist traitor (keeping my mother's own doubts on this topic to myself), JJ took to me as if I were her lost (perhaps dead) elder sister.
Even when my English improved and the other slaves stopped treating me like an idiot clown, JJ was the only one I trusted. She was clearly going to be an incredibly pretty teenager, and I took it upon myself to protect her from those who looked like they might be interested in taking some of that for themselves. Somehow, being the mistress' concubine, no matter how unused, meant that I was off limits. Emma being a telepath enforced certain rules to a degree that I doubted was matched in other households.
But although everyone was aware our Mistress could know what we were thinking if she bothered to check, there was still a lot of negative sentiment surrounding her. Even the mutant servants thought that she was too young, too arrogant, and too powerful. The humans were obviously afraid of her and her powers, but they also saw her youth, and that seemed to give them leave to hate her.
The talk reminded me of Irina's warnings, and I wondered, for the first time, if my fellows moved towards violence, would I betray them to save our lives, or would they kill me for being a traitor.
One of the things I learned while in Moscow was that work is a solace. My mother had always been proud of her important job. She loved it so much that I often wondered if she loved it more than me. But once she lost it, once she was an ambassador for a government that no longer existed, she fell apart. Even when there was no hope, which had been the case for many months before the end, just doing, acting, had kept her whole and sane. When it was over, when we were trapped in a small town, in a small house, living on charity, she cleaned. When the floors were scrubbed and the laundry bleached, she would polish her gun; polish her anger, her resentment, her victimization.
In the end, I could not see the difference between her maddened polishing and her passionate addiction to international affairs. When the nations fell, when all she believed in turned out to be just words, just lies, it seemed obvious to me that either task was just a way to pass the day, eat the hours, make yourself feel that your life was worthwhile.
Pride is the true measure of human existence.
I've lived in miserable places, miserable situations in my life, in cultures where women were worth nothing when divorced from their relationship to a man, who could not take pride in themselves. But they took pride in the successes of their children. They took pride in the regularity and order of their households. They fulfilled their duties to the highest degree they could, and they died satisfied, their lives worth no less than the greatest of kings and conquerors.
I had never been able to find that duty that I could take pride in completing. Always a foreigner, I was always out of place. My friends and companions knew their place, could see their future with a solidity and confidence that escaped me entirely. When I was a child and we lived in the Middle East, all I wanted was to get married. I wanted to be someone's second or third wife, low in the hierarchy so that there would always be someone to tell me what to do. I wanted to be surrounded by family, have children, who I would put before myself, and who would take care of me when they were old enough.
I was eleven when I told my mother this, and she told me it was an irresponsible thing to want. She told me that I was weak and foolish and old-fashioned to want something like that. To please her I had to be like her. I had to be selfish. I had to be memorable. I had to be an individual success. I knew better than to ask her what it all would be worth after I was dead. Would I be satisfied, always striving for this unreachable goal of glory?
I went to the secret church held in the basement of one of the abandoned factories in town and sat with the old ladies, staring at the bloodstained image of Christ unrolled and hung on the wall, surrounded by muttering in Ukrainian accented Latin.
I gave myself the stigmata once, in our kitchen, with a paring knife. My mother freaked out when she came in to find me bleeding all over the floor. She wouldn't understand that I wanted to know what it felt like, so I would be prepared.
"Prepared for what?" She cursed me, and bandaged my hands and feet, then made me scrub the floor.
Prepared for sacrifice, I wanted to tell her, prepared to fail. He died for our sins, they said over and over again. He died because of our sins, he died to end them, to protect us, and yet every day there are only more. Duty without pride, duty without satisfaction. There was something alluring in that, if only in the inevitable relief of death.
I listened to my mother's curses as she received the news of our world falling to the mutant empire. She fought it as best she could in the ways she knew. She called in contacts, powerful friends, mutant friends, who laughed at her and told her that it was too late. They were sorry, and she should stay in the Soviet Union, because this was their chance. It was their chance for freedom, and they followed Erik Magnus as if he were Moses, leading the slaves out of Egypt.
He was a one-man army. He could stand alone in front of tanks, of rockets, of battleships, and rip them apart. At his side were the Xavier brothers, one physically unstoppable, the other mentally so. And everywhere they went, the miserable, oppressed mutants rose up behind them, beating off troops with baseball bats and snow shovels if they had no useful powers. I had seen the reports on my mother's desk, seen the carnage that resulted, and every day stared out at the road that led past our house waiting for it to happen here.
The reason revolution came so much slower in the USSR than elsewhere was because Stalin had decreed that all mutants were to be transported to Siberia. They were captives and science experiments. Unlike in the US where they were an underclass, but free citizens, here they were kept under close guard. Eventually though, they broke out, and having lived together for so long, they were already an army.
I only wondered if it was my duty to die fighting this revolution for a moment. I had seen enough of how mutants were treated before, and thought, like a good traitor, that humanity had brought this upon itself.
Irina was one of the few who understood me when I said that dreams and ideologies were just words. The search for a meaning to life was itself a lie. But she asked me what meaning I would pick for myself. Those without meaning die at their own hand, she said, those with too much die at the hands of others like them. Find somewhere in the middle, a meaning you can live with but not die for.
I wonder sometimes, if my life hadn't been like this, if hadn't been tossed into this floating world, of power and anger and violence, of futility and hopelessness, would I have sought a way to help save the world. If I could have believed in my own power to change things in a positive way, would I have found satisfaction and pride in pursuing that path, even if it were always a stopgap, even if I could never truly save anything?
But in my reality, in the gulag, in Moscow, in the slave quarters in Genosha, those who spoke of change spoke of bombs strapped beneath their clothes.
I had seen enough death: my town, the frozen and diseased in Siberia, helping to fill the mass graves outside of Moscow with the bodies of human and mutant soldiers, whom I often could not tell apart in death. Some of the slaves could not face their fate, and cleaning the stables I often cut down a suicide, mopped up the blood.
Irina told me to choose a meaning, and I chose the one that had made sense to me as a child. I felt like a child again, in a world I did not understand, in a language that meant nothing to me, with rules and pathways shrouded in thorn bushes. My choice was work. I did my duty, and I took pride in doing it well. That was all I had. But it was all I needed.
I hardly saw my mistress for the first six months I lived in Genosha, and she never touched me. She was clearly busy with her court intrigues and rivalries for power, and sometimes, when I caught a glimpse of her ranting at one of her assistants, or looking blank as a servant tried to explain the chemical consistency of chocolate truffles, and why it was impossible to bring a box of them intact through the African heat without refrigeration, I wondered whether she was old enough to be interested in sex.
But finally she called me into her chambers. She looked awkward and young when she saw me, and actually flushed and avoided my eyes. I wondered what had encouraged this. Had someone at court questioned her maturity? Perhaps someone her age had been flaunting his or her sexual prowess. It had to be a competition, for she was far too uncomfortable to actually want it.
She asked me my name, perfunctorily, and I told her, not expecting her to use it or to remember. I had nearly forgotten it, since Jennifer was the only one who used it. When I was no longer 'new girl,' the other slaves called me 'Moscow.' I didn't bother to explain how offensive that was to someone from the Ukraine.
It was blatantly obvious what she had called me for. If the fact that she had called me directly to her bedroom was not enough, the hip-length white silk robe, which was all that she wore, was a large hint. The only thing I was unsure about was why it was me she had chosen. Technically I was the only slave classed as a concubine, but from what I had heard went on in other households, few masters paid much attention to such details.
My stomach was twisting in nervous tension, because imagining that you could obey, that you could do whatever work was commanded of you, was simple, the imagined humiliation and debasement a pleasant trickle on your skin. Actually doing it was not at all the same.
I kept my eyes down, uncomfortable with looking at her when she could see me doing so. My mistress had always been exceptionally direct. When she bothered to notice something we were doing that she thought was wrong, she never had any trouble saying it. When she wanted something complicated done she would say it and expect it to be done perfectly. If it wasn't she would thrust the concept into the foreman's head without preamble. But in this case she seemed to be having a hard time finding the words she needed.
It was almost shocking to be faced with her acting like this, stumbling over simple words, and skirting the issue at such a distance that if it hadn't been obvious due to context, I would have wondered what on earth she was talking about. It was so out of character that I almost played dumb so that I could enjoy the experience longer.
But she used my name, and I couldn't help but glance up. She was running her hands through her hair, agitatedly making a ponytail in her fist. Her hair was longer than it had been when I first arrived. She also wasn't as painfully skinny. I wondered if it was relief at not having to live on the same continent as her father anymore. The slinky robe she wore was half slipping off her shoulder. She looked utterly mortified, and I couldn't help take pity on her.
It wasn't as if this was more forced than it had been with Irina, where it was trade for protection and mutual warmth. But as much as I found it awkward to look at her, Emma had no trouble looking at me. And it was that, and her use of my name, that made it different. For the first time in too long, I felt that I existed. I wasn't Moscow, I wasn't a pair of hands or a piece of furniture, to be unacknowledged and ignored. And Emma, my mistress, was embarrassed and threatened by my presence. She was attracted to me, and that made it even easier.
I knelt on the lush thick rug and gestured for her to sit on the edge of the bed. She stood stiffly unable to move, and I held back my smile with difficulty. "Sit," I told her, a command.
She sat, but kept her legs pressed tightly together, her head bowed forward, a curtain of silky hair obscuring her face. I ran my fingers up her bare calves and over her knees. She looked up, and I smiled at her, trying to coax her into it.
Conflict was written clearly in her expression. At that moment it seemed very clear that women had never been made for power. There was so much vulnerability in this. I thought 'baring the tender underbelly' and had to work very hard not to laugh. A laugh at this moment would probably get me killed, and I would deserve it.
Instead I unbuttoned my shirt, took it off, and folded it carefully so it wouldn't get wrinkled. When I turned back, Emma was staring at me, desperate and unhappy, but with just a hint of hope. Her knees had gone limp, and I pushed them apart. She didn't help, but she didn't resist. Her fingers dug into the bedspread and she was biting down on her lower lip so hard I thought it might bleed.
I couldn't give her the chance to panic and push me away, and I couldn't let myself think too much about what I was doing, or I would never manage it.
She wanted me. I could feel it and smell it and taste it, and that had to be enough to make it okay.
It was only when I returned to the downstairs that I realized something had changed. Everyone knew where I had been and what I had done, and my fellows looked at me in disgust. They were laborers, they thought, but I was a whore. There was a line somewhere that I hadn't seen, and although they had always known that this was what I had been bought for, actually doing it separated me from them.
They told me I ought to hate her for making me into a pariah, into someone despised, but all I could remember were her fingers threading through my hair, twisting tightly as I made her gasp and whimper until she fell back on the bed with a mewling sigh. I could not forget the way she laid there, limp, overwhelmed and helpless, nor the involuntary mumbled 'Thank you' as I left.
She hadn't made me into a whore. They had.
My mistress did not call for me again until a month had past. Downstairs the looks of disgust my fellows gave me were superceded by mockery and ridicule. Everyone still stayed at a distance, as if they would catch my disease if they touched me, even on accident, but their words were cutting.
"She should have called for me," said Cyrus, a broad-shouldered footman. "I wouldn't have been sent back down so quick. I wouldn't have been sent back down at all." But he was one of the ones who would jump out of my way if I came near him, like I was cursed. And when he wasn't laughing he would look at me in disgust, as if he could see mutant fingerprints on my body.
JJ didn't understand why everyone avoided me now, but she didn't hang onto me anymore. She knew better than to take my arm in public even if she still ate with me and slept in the same room. But she didn't understand. When the others spit after they spoke to me, as if warding off evil spirits or spoke crudely behind my back, she would get angry, but she didn't know what was wrong and she didn't know how to fix it, so she would huddle in her bed and cry.
She asked me what had happened, what Emma had done to me. Had she hurt me? I said no. Was it hard work, like cleaning the downstairs bathrooms? I almost laughed at that. In a way it was hard, but not physically. And compared to suicide watch or death detail, like I had worked back in Moscow, it wasn't even emotionally difficult.
Jennifer wasn't a fool. She had turned thirteen that year although she didn't look it. With her round face and innocent eyes, I doubted she'd ever look her age. She had some conception of what sex was by then, it was hard not to in the gossipy downstairs with doors that did not lock. She didn't know why what I had done was different from other jobs, why it was more degrading.
It was hard to say, because I wasn't the one who found it degrading. In fact, it was less degrading than other jobs I had done. In Siberia, in Moscow I had sometimes been supervised directly by mutants who thought of me as nothing but a tool. Many were in the military, and often treated their subordinates with disrespect, but I was lower than that, rank-less, less status than a captured enemy because technically I was not even a person. I was a broom with ears. That was degrading, being stepped over or on, having your piles or your buckets turned over because you were beneath their notice. It was almost the same as the way my fellow slaves treated me now, as if I were less than human. And human itself was already a low, degraded status.
The only way I could understand it was in the context of death detail, stripping the bodies of their boots and their brass, tossing them into pits in their underwear. It was about the body. The body meant so much to humans. It was probably the reason for our current state of slavery. For many mutants, it was their body that changed, and that was why we rejected them. Cripples, the aged, other races, even the battling sexes were all differences in the body, and reasons enough for us to hate. And when you touched a body, particularly a verboten part, you were touched by it as well. It was probably why weapons were invented. Hand to hand combat could only be done with an equal.
I didn't know if that would make any sense to JJ. But I tried to explain it.
"It's embarrassing to see someone naked, isn't it?" I started, awkwardly. JJ nodded assent. I tried to skip past explaining why it was embarrassing. It was not something I could fully understand. Ownership didn't really make sense in this world. We didn't own our bodies. We didn't own the labor done by our own hands. I couldn't say that someone touching your body without permission was a violation of your right to control your own body. If it was someone besides your master, then it was theft, but if it was your master, it was entirely legal. "And touching someone naked is "
"Kinda gross," JJ filled in, wrinkling her nose.
"It can be. And sex is, well, beyond touching. It's not just brushing against the boundaries of the body, it's going inside, breaking through a wall that even looking at is socially unacceptable."
Jennifer cringed. "I don't understand why anyone would want to do that. It sounds really awful."
I laughed quietly. I couldn't say that I had had a romantic sexual experience; even my first had been more experimental than enjoyable, so I doubted I would oversell it. "It's not that bad. Not when you're with someone you trust, someone you don't mind seeing naked and who you know won't laugh at you."
JJ frowned and I could read her next question on her face.
"I think that's why they're disgusted by it. It should be personal, and even if it isn't emotionally intimate, it is, inherently, physically intimate. Especially because there's often an " I gulped and went for it. "An exchange of fluids."
"What!" JJ looked horrified and disgusted. A certain amount of gossip did not an expert make. "Did you do that?"
I didn't meet her gaze. "It's different from other kinds of work because of that. Even though everyone else works for her, everything they do with their bodies is to her benefit; their bodies are still only externally marked by her brand. For me it's internal. There's no real difference. They eat her food, bathe in her water, cleanse themselves with her soap, but they can pretend that their bodies are pure and mine is not."
JJ looked down at her hands. "Why do they spit in your food?"
I had eaten worse, but I hated it anyways. JJ played games with the plates, getting my meals for me so they wouldn't risk contaminating hers too. It wouldn't last for too long. If she kept associating with me, even her angel face couldn't keep them from despising her like they despised me.
"It's the same thing. They want some way to mark me, to own me, make sure I am lower than them. If they didn't hate me for it, perhaps they would think I was special to be singled out for this."
"Why did she choose you?"
I still could not guess.
"Why don't you hate it? I think that's part of the reason they're all so angry with you."
"And if I had pretended to feel horrified and abused they would pity me instead of bully me. It's my work. It was what I was asked to do, and I like to take pride in completing my tasks well. Deny me that, and you deny me satisfaction. Others might be satisfied with futile plotting or laziness, but I am not like that."
"No." JJ gave me a weak smile. "I like that about you. I like to be able to feel proud when the faucets are all shiny. I wouldn't want you to change that."
"I don't hate her. She's a mutant, but that isn't a reason to hate someone." I had based most of my assumption of her character on the garbled story Jennifer had told about being taken from the brothel. In other ways she was childish and petulant, but I wasn't about to blame someone for being young.
"She scares me. She shouts in my head when she's angry."
"She does?" I had been around her when she grew annoyed with a crew of workers. Everyone around me had cringed away from what I thought was merely an imperious look. I had always wondered why they reacted so strongly. "She doesn't in mine."
JJ looked at me from the side, hesitant in asking. "Do you trust her?"
I considered the definition of trust I had given her earlier. Did I trust her not to laugh at my body? I did, if only because the way she was so obviously attracted to me. And there was no way I could say I was offended at having to look at her naked form. It was just a pity that she only called for me once.
My fellows seemed to be trying to keep me away from her. I worked up in the gardens on the roof for weeks shoveling manure, and then downstairs scrubbing floors and bathrooms. If they wanted to shame me by giving me dirty difficult work, they failed. I was never ashamed of work. But finally they risked sending me up to change the linens while our mistress was at court. She came back unexpectedly, to retrieve a forgotten item, and walked into her bedroom while I was attempting to spread the sheet across the bed by myself. My assigned companion had disappeared, revolted by the company and the location. I was bending over and didn't notice that she had come in until I straightened up and saw her, still standing in the doorway, watching me with an indecipherable look on her face.
A moment too late I realized I shouldn't be scrutinizing her expression and quickly ducked my head. She walked briskly past me and gathered a few papers from her desk in the adjoining room. Then she left, saying nothing to me.
It was that night she called me to her rooms once more.
"Moscow, the mistress wants you," called Aaron, the foreman of the downstairs.
Somehow, at first, I was sure it was going to be a scolding for not getting her sheets smooth enough, but when I reached her room and saw her pacing from end to end, looking frustrated and irritated, I suspected it might be another reason.
Her wide-eyed expression when she noticed my presence was charming, as always. And then she scowled and cursed the air in vain.
"I don't like this," she said with a sharp frown. "I don't like wanting this."
"You don't have to explain yourself," I said softly, but she looked up sharply, surprised at my interruption. I thought it was strange at first, her resistance to her own desires, but she was so young, and in her world self-control was one of the most important virtues. Her father had used me to make a statement, tell her that he knew she couldn't control herself, that even she would eventually succumb to her lusts. I wondered vaguely why he had chosen me for this, but perhaps it was merely a general statement, and he did not expect her to actually use me. But she had. She had broken down before her own principles and her father's challenge, and that shamed her.
Her expression was pained. I doubted she even knew the words she ought to use to order me to serve her. I went to my knees. She gave a short nod and stood awkwardly, reaching for the fastening on her pants. I stopped her, my hand cupped over hers, and she looked at me again, slightly desperate and utterly confused. But I wanted to do it; it would give me the time I needed to adjust, to make myself believe that I wanted her.
In an oddly vindictive way I did. She could order me to do whatever she wished, her decision to use me could turn me into a pariah, but I could destroy her prized self-control and leave her a whimpering mess.
I guided her to sit and moved up her body, never standing over her, never trying to make my power over her explicit. I was there to serve her. And as I opened her shirt I tasted her skin. Her fingers curled into the blankets. She bit down on her lip and hated herself.
I had almost forgotten, after a month of mockery, disgust, and harassment, why I hadn't felt degraded by this. But here, now, my lips on her skin, my hands sliding her pants over her hips, the distinct strain in her muscles as she tried to resist, I could not comprehend the idea that I could be any less for this when it made me feel as if I had the power to rule the world.
She lay naked and wilted as I stood to leave. She murmured something as I turned away and I was at the door before I realized that what she had said was, "Don't go."
I stopped and glanced back to find her looking at me, her eyes as vulnerable and intent as JJ's begging for comfort after a nightmare. Somehow I knew she didn't expect me to stay. It had been a request, not an order.
Shutting the door again I walked back over to the bed. Emma wriggled under the covers and held them open for me. I shucked off my trousers and crawled in, stiffly, not sure exactly what she wanted. The moment I lay down she draped herself over me, burying her face in my hair and breathing in. I lay there frozen, aroused, uncomfortable, and in mere moments I was informed she was asleep, if only by the rumbling snores in my ear.
I hadn't expected to wake up with her. I hadn't planned on going to sleep. I was just waiting for her to roll over, or at least shift her weight off of me. But clean sheets and a mattress that deep and soft have a soporific effect.
When I awoke I didn't know where I was. There was light coming in through the curtains, instead of the dim twilight of my windowless room downstairs. And for once I felt like I had had enough sleep, waking up naturally instead of to our foreman shouting and banging on the doors as he called us to work. Shifts started at five in the morning and ended at ten pm, curfew at midnight. Five hours of sleep was a luxury we rarely got, but that morning there was only silence, and I rolled over, seeking the heat of the body beside me.
I thought, for a moment, that I was still a child, waking up on a bright morning of a New England summer, nothing to do but laze the day away. It was a part of my life I had tried not to think of for a long time, since before the revolution, because I had been happy then, confident and at home. I had had a father and a mother then, friends as well. I was not yet lost in a land where I would always be the foreigner.
Squinting in the light, I opened my eyes and saw her watching me, discomfort vividly written on her face. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the sunlight seemed to strip me bare, more than she was, tangled hair brushing over naked shoulders.
I hastened out of her bed and into my pants, nearly toppling over as my legs tangled in them. I felt sick. I had overstayed. I had taken advantage of the situation, of her vulnerability, and I knew she would not call for me again. Honestly, what must it be like to awaken and find that your bed had been invaded by a slug, a vile worm, a parasite?
I did not look back as I stumbled out the door and ran towards the back stairs. I reached my floor as the clock struck nine. Aaron grabbed the back of my shirt as I hurtled past, and I slipped, sliding across the worn floors and hitting the wall face first, tumbling into a crumpled heap at the base.
"Where have you been?" he cursed at me. "You missed curfew! You missed your first two shifts!"
"I was with the mistress," I tried to make out with my hand covering my mouth where it had gone numb from its impact with the wall.
"For eleven hours?" He pushed his hand against his head, black hair spiking up between his fingers. His expression was mildly nauseated, disgusted by the images in his mind.
"You're assigned to the roof." He gave me a long, searching look. I wondered what he was searching for. Regret? Humility? Satisfaction? "Report to the posts at midday."
Forty for shirking was going to be my punishment. I knew that. It wasn't unreasonable. Aaron was fair. He had been chosen as foreman because of that quality.
It sometimes struck me as ingenious, the way they made us choose our masters and punish ourselves. In the gulag they hadn't done that, and once there had been a small rebellion where a mutant who was too free with the whip stepped inside an enclosure alone and was mobbed and murdered by the humans there. All of them had been executed for it. But if the one punishing you was one of your own, there was little risk of vengeance.
I hadn't been whipped since I left the gulag, and never punished for shirking. Even the ones who hated me knew that I never avoided work. So when I was called to the posts, a frame built on the stage at one end of the refectory, while my fellows were eating their midday meal, there were far more stares and whispers than usual. Others were called up for drunkenness or laziness. Theft was referred upstairs. But five was the heaviest punishment regularly given.
When Aaron announced that I would receive forty for missing two full shifts, the refectory fell into dead silence. I climbed up the stage and bound up my hair, stripping off my shirt, wrinkled from sleeping in it, and soiled from working in the gardens that morning. Then I stretched over the frame and took hold of the farthest bar.
Cyrus was the one who wielded the whip. In Russia they had used proper horsewhips, but here the whip was a long rod of Kevlar, as flexible as a willow branch, wrapped in braided nylon with a leather cap on the end and a leather handgrip. It was designed to raise welts, but not cut the skin. In that, it was usually successful. Cyrus let it run over my back before he began, and he bent to whisper in my ear.
"I hope you enjoyed your night as much as I'll enjoy this," he said. I did not wonder if he were jealous or merely repelled by me and sadistic.
My knuckles were white where they gripped the bar. The strokes hurt less if your muscles were tensed, but if you relaxed and then tried to re-tense, every welt would ache again. And if you were too slow, a quick lash across an unprepared target could elicit an involuntary cry. I did not want to cry out. Cyrus hated stoics and would hit harder, in more sensitive places, for those who tried to retain their dignity. A few men who were up here too often for not being able to keep their paws out of the liquor cabinet had leaned to moan and groan playfully at each cut of the whip. If they made him laugh, he wouldn't hit so hard. But he hated me already, and forty was far too many to take with ease.
I could take it. It was only physical pain. But still, when the whip cut across my shoulder blades for the first time, my teeth clenched together as I bit down on my scream and I realized I had underestimated the degree of agony. I would not cry out, I told myself; I would not weaken like that. But my back was a blazing mass of pain from shoulder to hip. Aaron cried out, "ten!" The whip wrapped around my waist, stinging like a viper.
My shoulders gave out first. I was draped over the frame, too weak to hold myself in position. The bars pressed into my chest, my stomach, my thighs, my shins and the lashing did not stop. There was no untouched inch of space on my back, so the whip slashed crosswise over previous welts, turning throbbing anguish into screaming pain. I tasted blood in my mouth and realized that I had bit down on my tongue, but I could not even feel it, the pain was so minor in comparison.
We had only reached fifteen when I started to cry, tears streaming down my face. I could hardly breathe, gasping for air at each stroke, but they were coming too fast for me to breath out in anything but a choke. Blood pounded in my head, and my vision, though only of my bloodless knuckles, swam. I thought I might loose consciousness. "Twenty!" Aaron called out, though I could barely hear him through the buzzing in my ears.
The strikes stopped and I spared a glance toward Cyrus, who was flexing his hands. He wasn't used to delivering so many strokes at once, either. I did my best to drag myself into a better position, my welts protesting at every motion. But I needed my feet flat on the floor or my already sore knees would be decorated with as many bruises as my back.
Cyrus raised his arm and struck again. "Twenty one!" My gasp was slightly voiced, almost a cry, but I had not screamed, I had not begged him to stop. I could take it. I just could not think that I had nearly twice as many again to go. Each one had to be new, or the accumulation of anticipation would destroy me.
Although tired, Cyrus' strokes grew heavier, not lighter. Instead of slashing with his wrist, he brought the whip down with the full momentum of his arm. It cut less, and stung less, but it bludgeoned already tender skin. But the strikes came slower as well. I could breathe. It gave me longer to register the agony.
I could not bear it anymore. I hung by fingers barely hooked over the bar, too weak to clutch it tightly. I clenched my teeth and shut my eyes and wished I were dead.
"Thirty!" And something soothing, a liquid, trickled down my back. It was not cool, but the welts throbbed less at its touch.
I did not know that the room, already full of silent staring watchers, went dead still at that moment, when my skin caught on the leather cap of the whip and split open, blood running down my back. When the whip connected again and then pulled back, my blood spattered across the room, marking the walls and staining the audience in their silent horror.
"Hey! Enough!" someone shouted.
"Thirty-five," Aaron said, more weakly than he had called the rest. Even Cyrus looked over at him, unsure of whether he should continue. But he made no move to stop it. The whip came down again, low on my waist.
The next one cut across the base of my neck. I wept because I could do nothing else.
Again on my waist, nearly following the same track as the previous one. I hardly felt it.
Cyrus caught my neck and the tops of my shoulders with the lash. The tip came around in a snaking curve and cut my cheek.
The last one was a straight shot across my shoulder blades, above the cut, and across another four like it. It was almost a relief.
There was nothing but silence.
I crouched on the tiles in one of the baths and JJ squeezed water out of a sponge to run down my back, trying to wash the blood off without touching the mass of bruising weals. I felt too sick and weak with hunger and pain to risk soaking it off in the bath.
"Some of it's dried, I'm going to have to " JJ's expression looked more anguished than I felt.
She seemed to whimper visually.
"Get it over with. The anticipation makes it worse." That was a lie. The scratch of the sponge over my open wound and tender skin felt like a cheese grater. I couldn't help the hiss of pain and JJ looked like she was about to cry. "Please, just wrap it, quickly."
Wiping her tears on her sleeve, Jennifer did her best to bandage the cut, but she was afraid to pull it tight against my other injuries. "Tighter," I had to tell her. "Tighter," until I could feel it resist when I breathed. "We don't want to be late."
I dressed quickly to report to my assignment before the midday break ended. I hadn't eaten anything for breakfast or dinner, but I doubted I could keep it down as it was, not when I wanted to vomit every time my shirt brushed against my welts.
Aaron caught me before I went up to the roof. His expression was pained and guilty. I couldn't help but be disgusted by him. He decided on the punishment, he went through with it even when he saw what it was like, and now he felt guilty? What use was that?
"Dinner service," he mumbled. "They're polishing silver this shift."
I hadn't been on dinner service since she had called for me the first time. It was light duty without much supervision and was usually given to someone who deserved a treat or had done a favor for the foreman. He glanced down at JJ. "You too."
If anything the other slaves assigned to the same duties were even more skittish around me. But they looked at me with pity and a little horror now. It made me angry rather than appeased. I had missed two shifts and been punished for it. I had taken what I deserved and now they were doing me favors because I bled and cried in front of them? I felt humiliated by their attentions.
It was also hard for me to focus. I was hungry and sickened and the fumes from the silver polish made my head spin. I kept on dropping things, but no one yelled at me.
They needed someone to go collect the silver candlesticks from around the house, and I jumped at the chance to get out of that oppressive atmosphere. Even Jennifer's solicitude was grating. I moved quickly, gathering an armload of candlesticks and other silver items.
I was taking the ones off the sideboard in the foyer when the front door banged open and Emma stalked in, sweat slick on her forehead and darkening her hair. She was breathing hard and threw her court robes toward the coat tree with a startling viciousness. They missed and fell in a heap on the ground. Her shirt was soaked, and no one was with her. A footman was always supposed to be waiting in her car and another in the elevator to escort her up and take her robes. But it looked like she had run the whole way back from court and taken the stairs as well.
I froze, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, even while carrying ten pounds of solid silver. I didn't need her looking at me, not after screwing up so badly the night before. I had let myself get comfortable, far too comfortable. I had felt in control, and I had liked that feeling, so been willing to do her a favor, forgetting entirely who was the mistress, whose bed it was, and all consideration of my place. She had every right to punish me.
She didn't notice me, stormed right past, heading for her rooms, and I sidled towards the door to the kitchens. My heart was fluttering fast, and I felt lightheaded. I was terrified of her opprobrium and what would result from her attention. I had almost reached the doorway when she suddenly stopped short and turned toward me. She looked furious and contemptuous. Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. She advanced towards me, threateningly.
"Don't-" she started, her voice sounding blunt and rough.
I skittered backwards, my injured back and shoulders coming into sudden harsh contact with the doorframe. I gasped, dizzy and anguished, and staggered back again, into the open archway that led to the parlor.
She looked surprised. I didn't wonder why. I swiveled to run, but the quick turn made my head spin in lurching spirals. Whirling sounds filled my ears and the room started to twist. A glinting waterfall splashed to the floor, warping like mercury. I didn't recognize it as the silver.
The world was bent in sickening curves. I glanced over my shoulder at Emma, who seemed smeared and inchoate. Her mouth was moving, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. I shook my head.
<< Emily! >>
The word plunged into my mind like an arrow from a longbow. She remembers my name I thought, and everything went black.
"Welcome back, sleeping beauty," said a cheerful voice above me.
I squinted, because all I could see was a large blue blob. It was moving and wearing glasses. The blueness settled, finally, into a furry creature in a lab coat. It reached out to touch me and I cringed away. The creature looked hurt, and I felt guilty. I had not had much experience with such physically inhuman mutants, but I had reacted to him the way others reacted to me.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled weakly, and lifted my arm slightly, so he could adjust the IV.
He gave me a sympathetic look, and I curled into myself, away from his kindness. He was a mutant. Why would he find it worthwhile to be kind to me?
"You need to take more care of yourself," he said, tapping my nose. "I cleaned up your back." I moved slightly. The bandages were new and skillfully wrapped. It didn't hurt. "A bit of anti-bacterial and some topical anesthetic."
"Someone doesn't like to see people passed out all over her carpet." He glanced back over his shoulder. I followed his gaze. Emma was leaning against the doorframe, glaring pointedly at nothing. With a horrible sinking feeling I realized that I was back in my mistress' bed, exactly where I ought not to be.
"Thank you," I muttered hurriedly, and tried to sit up, but a restraining blue paw landed on my shoulder.
"No, my dear, you're staying here until that bag is empty." He pointed at the IV, still half full of fluid. "Do you think you could eat something?"
I nodded. My stomach growled in accompaniment. He picked up a plate of chapattis off the side table and offered it to me.
"Lets try plain at first, get something in there so you can take your anti-inflammatories."
It felt so incredibly wrong to have a mutant serving me. My mistress was in the door like a guardian. I was in her bed and being looked after. I felt so sick I could hardly choke down a few bites of the bread. But apparently it had been enough and the mutant doctor handed me two pills and a glass of water. I took them obediently.
"Low blood sugar, dehydration and blood loss are not a happy threesome," he said, pointing his claw at me instructively. "Please try to eat regularly. Get plenty of rest, and ice your back to reduce the swelling."
"Yes, my lord," I said awkwardly, unsure of how to address him since I did not know his title. He laughed and patted my head.
"None of that now. I'm Henry McCoy, and look," he pointed to the IV, "you're all done." He popped the needle out of my arm and patted it with a cotton ball.
I slid out of bed as quickly as I could without falling. "Thank you, Dr. McCoy." I gave him a half bow and sped towards the door. My mistress stepped aside to let me pass, fixing me with a long cold look. I didn't know what it meant, but it made me shiver, and I ducked through the door, ready to bolt for the stairs.
A furry paw caught my arm. Dr. McCoy handed me the plate of chapattis. "Better take that with you. I think Emma may have made a bit of a mess of the downstairs, and supper might be late getting started."
The downstairs was dark and silent as a grave. I walked through the dim hallways, meeting no one, the fear creeping up on me from behind. Then I found the first body.
I crouched and took his pulse. He was still alive, just unconscious. I checked everyone I came to. Bodies were scattered throughout the halls, in ones and twos, a few groups that I had seen together before. They had been taken down as they were encountered, no chance to flee. They were all limp, slumped bonelessly, but breathing shallowly.
Then I reached the refectory. It was packed with unconscious bodies, spread across tables, collapsed on the floor. All of them wore expressions of pain or horror.
Cyrus was bound to the posts, his back a bloody mess. Aaron was hanging by his wrists from the ceiling, stripped to the waist, also viciously beaten, front and back.
I had seen too many people hanging, and I hurried to him, picking my way through the tangle of fallen bodies. He was breathing, but weakly. I cut him down, positioning his head between his knees. I cut Cyrus off the posts. I couldn't look at his wounds, even thinking that my back had looked the same earlier that day made me want to vomit.
I looked out, over the silent bodies, the light dim and casting black shadows in their crevasses.
I caught sight of a glint of light on silk, and felt a flash of panic, irrationally thinking that my mistress had followed me into this dungeon. But it was JJ, peeking out from under one of the tables.
"Are you all right?" I went to her, careful to not crush a hand or a face under my feet.
She crawled out, nodding, and buried herself in my arms. "It was it was so awful. Everyone was screaming. And they " She pointed to the men on the stage. "They moved like puppets, and they started hurting each other." She choked on a sob and pressed her face into my chest. "Why were they hurting each other?"
I couldn't answer. I could only wonder if this was my fault.
I had asked myself once if Irina had seen that I would make the decision to send a few people to their fates to save the greater portion. I had never even considered the reverse.
Emma had tortured everyone because they hurt me. I couldn't find any other way to understand it. She had been angry when she came in. Something had obviously set her off before. You don't run five miles in ceremonial robes for no reason, but what she had done to her slaves was unprecedented and what she had done for me was bewildering.
I found the chapattis where I had left them, by the first victim of her rampage. A few people were starting to wake up. I didn't want to be there when they put two and two together.
Jennifer sat huddled on my bed, eating the bread. She looked at me, sadly. "I don't understand," she said, quietly. "Why is this happening?"
I pressed my fingers to my eyes. I had no answers for her.
"Why did they have to hurt you today? Is your back all right?"
I nodded. "A doctor looked at it."
JJ swallowed hard. "When you didn't come back with the silver, I went to look for you. You were on the floor. I couldn't, I didn't know if you were still alive. She was there, and I thought But she was too scared to touch you. You were bleeding again. The bandages were all " She looked up at me, her lips pinched tightly together, her eyes glistening. "I helped her carry you to her bed. I showed her what they did. She went in my head to see what had happened. And she was so angry. I could feel her get angry. She shouted like thunder in my mind and told me to wait for the doctor and let him in." JJ looked down. "But I didn't. I followed her, and everyone everyone started screaming. Her eyes were all black, and she wouldn't stop. And then they started to hurt each other, Mr. Foreman and Cyrus, and I " She scrubbed at her face with her fist. "I was happy that they were getting hurt like they hurt you. But they were screaming, and they still couldn't stop hurting each other. And I I hid under the table."
It seemed to me that Jennifer understood a lot more than she gave herself credit for. I tugged out the collar of my shirt and did my best to look at the clean bandages on my back. I couldn't comprehend any of this.
"If I were a mutant, I would have done it."
I looked at her, confused.
"I would have done it for you. I would want them to all feel as bad as you did."
"You shouldn't," I tried to say. "You shouldn't want that. I missed work. I got what I deserved. I didn't want them to be punished for treating me fairly."
"It wasn't fair," JJ shook her head. "None of it was. You weren't here; you didn't just sleep in. You had to work all night. And then they punished you for it, like they always do, punishing you for doing the work that they're too scared and grossed out to do."
In some ways I thought that she was right. But she didn't know how it had felt that morning, before I had to remember where I was and the panic and misery choked my heart in bindweed, what it had felt like to have enough sleep for once, to be wrapped in soft sheets, and warm, not dying of heat from living too close to the air conditioner exhaust vents.
Everyone knew how much being whipped had hurt, but I was the only one who knew how good it had felt to miss those two shifts, and wake up happy. I had cheated. My anger at them for pitying me had been unwarranted. Now that I had seen what they saw, of course they would pity me, and the blood would turn their stomachs. But tomorrow I was so afraid of tomorrow.
I lay down on my side, setting the empty plate on the floor, and pulled the blankets over myself and JJ.
"Can I stay here tonight?" Jennifer asked, finding part of my pillow. "I'm I'm scared."
"What of?" I asked, absently, trying to find a comfortable position to lie in, so my back wouldn't grate against the mattress.
"Everything," JJ said quietly. "Everything today was so terrifying. You weren't here when I woke up, and then at dinner I had to throw up everything I ate. Then you disappeared again, and it looked like you were dead. And then she " JJ burrowed into me, and involuntarily I thought of how Emma had draped herself over me the night before. It felt like she had needed me, needed something, more than the sex, more than release. I wondered if her vengeance would keep her warm tonight.
"I think I'm afraid of her," said Jennifer, softly.
I slipped my arms around her, my fingers threading through silky blonde hair. It was impossible to distinguish hers from the other by feel. It was impossible to tell whom I feared more.
"I think I am too."
The pity was gone. I missed it. Even the obvious disgust and revulsion was better than this. I didn't exist. Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil. If I came into a room it would empty. If I spoke to someone they would turn away and speak to someone else. A few people would cross themselves when they saw me.
It shouldn't have been worse than them hating me. But they were so terrified, and there was nothing I could do. Less than nothing. If I showed any anger at the way they were treating me, a look of panic would cross their faces and they would flee.
It felt like being dead.
I couldn't even work. People would stand in between Aaron and I if I ever tried to approach him. They wouldn't look at me or tell me to leave, but they kept me away from him. I didn't blame them. They had seen hell, and it was my fault.
I wanted to be sold.
I watched them gathering in small groups in the refectory or in the hallways, comforting each other, whispering, trying to make sense of what had been done to them. From what I overheard, there was little sedition in these conversations. Even the snide criticisms, the epithets, the despising remarks that had been made about our mistress on a daily basis, easily, with the confidence of those too unimportant and weak to bother punishing, had disappeared. Their hatred had been replaced by fear.
The schedules changed. Any contact with Emma was to be avoided. The mutant servants already did most of the escorting and serving, but even the cleaning crews posted lookouts to know when she entered the building so they could disappear.
All I could do was wait for her to call me. I didn't know whether I was more impatient or more afraid for that to occur.
One man had died in the refectory that night. He was older than most and had had a heart attack from the horrors Emma had put inside his head. She had murdered him, carelessly.
The mutant servants took his body away. No one knew for certain, but there were rumors that human corpses were brought to the dump and tossed in the landfills with the rest of the waste.
I hadn't known him. He had been one who ignored me while I was new and cursed absently at me once I had become a whore. I wasn't even certain of his name until he died and I could hear the whispers about Jason this, Jason that. I wasn't invited to the memorial they held. I didn't know about it.
I walked in on it accidentally. Aaron, still bandaged and pale, stood on the stage in the refectory, speaking about him, everyone sitting quietly. He froze and stopped his speech when he saw me. The entire room turned to stare at me and I could feel their blame and their resentment like a blow. I left. It was clear I was unwelcome. I was the one who had caused his death.
The other favorite topic of conversation was what our mistress' powers truly were. Before, all they had known was that she could speak into their minds. I hadn't even seen true evidence of that until the day it happened, but now there was evidence of so much more.
The ones who crossed themselves in my presence believed that mutation was a sign of possession. They spoke of the eternal torment of hell. Now they had some idea what it was like, pain without physical cause, pain without hope of solace. According to them, all she had done was open a small channel to her home, given them a taste of the unquenchable fire.
It was the ones who could not believe in the evil supernatural who were truly horrified by her power. How could you trust a world where someone was given the ability to do that to you? What did it mean when it became clear that you were a victim, you were prey, and you never had the chance to be anything else?
It was the strong ones who suffered from this, the ones who believed that their status as slaves was misfortune, not destiny. They were the ones who discussed tactics as they ate dinner, rehashing old battles, what the human armies should have done that would have stopped this Mutant Reich. But now they had felt what real power was, and they knew themselves to be weak. They had lost the faith in their own superiority that made living as a slave bearable.
I was afraid as well, afraid of what she could do, but even more afraid because I couldn't understand why she did it. There was no reason I should be worth so much. It couldn't have been about me entirely. But whatever had been the cause, her reaction had been violent, indiscriminate, and irrational. I had always seen her as a little bit of a child, but this was a tantrum that had left a man dead and others irreparably scarred, both mentally and physically.
But when she called for me, I went.
It felt different this time, opening the door, stepping inside. She had stood there, waiting for me to wake up, after she had tortured fifty people, after she had murdered someone.
I couldn't call it anything else.
I couldn't understand how she had done such a thing. I had never felt that she saw me as less than a person. Her discomfort, her fear of me had shown me that. And how could a telepath, who knew that everyone was truly there, was a thinking feeling being, who could see it every moment, ever fall victim to the lie that a person could be a thing? She must have known what she was doing. She must have felt every ounce of their pain and rejoiced in it.
My mistress was waiting, barefoot, hair still wet and clumped from washing, wrapped in her too short bathrobe. She looked like she always did, but what I saw was completely different. I could only see the woman that JJ had described, the one with black eyes, and a certain stride, her powers reaching out and choking their minds with a deadly painful grip, more cruel than a hand around their throat that stopped their breathing.
Lost in reliving that, I didn't notice her turn to look at me. I didn't notice the shock on her face, the twist of sickness in her expression.
I focused on her, but not before her hand struck my shoulder and I fell to my knees.
"Don't look at me like that!"
She sounded furious. I wasn't looking at her at all. I stared at my hands, planted on the floor, and I waited for her to continue to beat me, to strike me again. Whether it was with her hand or her mind I didn't care.
"You're looking at me wrong." The fury had fled her voice and she sounded hurt. How could she be hurt? I had to see her expression, so I peered up, through my hair, which had fallen in front of my eyes.
Emma looked desperate. She rubbed her face with the back of her fist, like Jennifer always did when she was trying not to cry. "Why are you afraid of me?" she murmured, half to herself. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"Why not?" The words were out of my mouth before I could even think to restrain them. She blinked, stunned that I had responded, stunned by my response. I continued clarifying my question, against my better judgment. "You hurt everyone else. Why not me? Why am I different? Why did you choose me, single me out like this?"
My mistress' shoulders stiffened and she turned her head away. She slapped with her words. "You have no right to-"
"I know!" I pressed my face against the floor, covering my head with my hands as if they would offer some sort of protection from my impertinence, as if prostrating myself would elicit mercy. "I know "
"I can't hear you."
I stayed frozen. There was no way she could not have heard that. There was no way I would not suffer for this. I heard her sigh, a little roughly, as if she were giving in.
"I'm a telepath, and I'm good at it," she said sharply, defensively. "I have incredible range and power. I can map someone's mind more quickly and accurately than Charles Xavier. But I can't turn it off." I looked up through my fingers and wondered how someone could look so angry and speak so evenly. She wasn't looking at me. Staring at the wall, her words were crisp as if she were presenting an argument to the court. She could not look at me.
"With any other slave, I would know they were hating it, hating me. With any other mutant, I would only be able to think about what they wanted from me, how much respect they lost for me because I submitted to them. But you your shields are surprisingly good for a human, and you didn't hate me. I just needed a little time with someone who didn't hate me." She shook her head. "You don't know what it's like to live surrounded by people who hate you."
I thought I might know more than she assumed.
"That's why?" It was some trick of fate, of biology, nothing but had I expected more? "My shields?"
"You weren't always yapping, like everyone else." She gave me a look that clearly told me to shut up. I ducked my head and shut up.
She took a step toward me and I flinched at her touch. "You're afraid." Her fingers dug into my jaw and she lifted my chin so I didn't have any choice but to look at her. She shook her head, her hair falling across her face and shadowing her eyes. "Worthless."
I tensed. What did she mean? She let go of me and turned away.
I didn't understand, so I didn't move. She looked back over her shoulder, her eyes lit with anger. "Didn't you hear me?"
She spun, the back of her hand connecting with my face, striking my cheek.
She screamed it in my head and in my ears. I scrambled to my feet and fled.
Vol 2: Nights Spent Listening to Noises
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